Tuesday, 19 March 2019

That's all folks (my last speech to Bradford Council)

Strictly not my last as I used my right to reply to thank the hundreds of Council officers who helped make my job as a councillor possible - but here's the prepared speech.

"On my bedside table there’s a copy of The Little World of Don Camillo, Giovanni Guereschi’s whimsical evocation of life in a little Italian town back in the 1940s. More than any other book, this one has shaped how I think about politics. Let me share a bit from its opening:
…I want you to understand that, in the Little World between the river and the mountains, many things can happen that cannot happen anywhere else. Here, the deep, eternal breathing of the river freshens the air, for both the living and the dead, and even the dogs have souls. If you keep this in mind, you will easily come to know the village priest, Don Camillo, and his adversary, Peppone, the Communist Mayor. You will not be surprised that Christ watches the goings on…and that one man beats the other over the head, but fairly – that is without hatred – and that in the end the two enemies find they agree about essentials.
Those ‘essentials’ are in the simplest terms community, neighbourhood and pride in the place we live.

In this grand room we talk about Bradford in sweeping terms but outside, our attention is, as us pompous urbanists put it, more granular. Most of our work as councillors – and probably the thing that gives us most pleasure – is done in the communities we represent.

I was sat on top of Denholme Edge the other day eating a ham and tomato sandwich, admiring the view. Much of what I see from there is Bingley Rural. And it is beautiful.

Anyway I was sat there and I got to thinking. Each way I looked, into every nook of the places in that view there was a story – something that had been done to make the place a little better. Some of those stories were about stopping something – the ten year campaign, ending in the High Court, to stop a landfill blighting Denholme – but most were about improvement, little acts of betterment. A new kids playground, some traffic lights, a crossing – small things that matter to people far more than the big things we usually talk about in these Council meetings.

Bradford is a place of a thousand little worlds, each one different and each one precious to the people who live it them. It is those little worlds that my motion is about. First that we should celebrate the ordinary folk who, every day, do something to make those places better or the people in them stronger. And second that, even in these financially constrained times, us councillors – individually and collectively – can do something to help those good people with their betterment.

The idea for a loan product starts with a meeting I had with the then Corporate Services Director, Stuart McKinnon-Evans. I happened to mention the efforts to raise the cash to build a new village hall in Cullingworth and that they were looking at a soft loan from Unity Bank or Charity Bank. Stuart’s response was “why not ask the Council?”.

We did, and tomorrow £50,000 will be loaned to the hall by the Council – the final bit of funding for a £900,000 project.

The new hall is built and, with a fair wind, will open after Easter this year – nearly six years after former Heaton councillor, Bryan Hobson – then chair of the hall committee – announced the need for a new hall because the old one, a 50 year old wooden hut, was falling down.

My motion simply asks officers to look into how we might make this approach more widely available – Cullingworth was lucky because I was leader of the Conservative Group and sat in a meeting with the Council’s most senior finance officer.

There is a lot of criticism – not always justified – directed at the council for giving too much attention to the city centre. This motion, at pretty much zero cost to the council, allows us to provide another way to support local communities – those little worlds we each represent - do those little acts of betterment.

If you want to be flash, you could call it social venture capital – investing in social enterprises like community centres, sports clubs and pre-schools. Add to this the consideration of planning gain, some advice and support around planning and licensing, and we have a little package that can perhaps get a few more local initiatives out of the ground.

It’s not a panacea and can’t replace the loss of grant funding or the reduction in neighbourhood support or community development but it would help and, I feel, show that the Council is thinking about those thousands of little worlds than make up our city as well as the grand projects that might make the centre of that city great again.

Lord Mayor, I’ve sat through – and made the occasional contribution to – over 200 council meetings. A lot of what we do features much sound and fury but little real purpose beyond political campaigning. But in and amongst this are little ideas – often quiet – that we soon forget about but which make a real difference to some of those little worlds.

In the end we’re not measured by the titles we had, the power we wielded or the things we said, we’re tested on whether we did good and if, at the end of our time, we made the places we represent just a little bit better.

In Rudyard Kipling’s paean to his home county of Sussex he starts like this:
God gave all men all earth to love
But, since our hearts are small
Ordained for each one spot should prove
Beloved over all…
We are vessels for the love that people have for their communities, their neighbourhoods – you all know this – and I hope that, in our small way, we can help those people make their little worlds just that little better."


Sunday, 17 March 2019

Are there too many posh people in politics? And, if so, what should we do about it?

Chris Dillow, in a slightly chip-on-his-shoulder manner, writes how "posh people" should be disqualified from politics. Chris cites lack of hustle, overconfidence, a casual attitude to money and the lack of a "gut understanding" of how other people live. There's nothing new about the analysis presented - people who've had a struggle to escape from poverty very often resent the effortlessness with which posh people slide into grand roles.

There are, however, some thoughts arising from this that strike me as important:

1. By creating two categories, rich and poor, Chris ignores the reality which is that most people are neither. An interesting experiment here would be to contrast the manner in which 'middle class' is understood in the USA and the way in which 'middle class' is presented very often in the UK. I'm middle class (my Dad was an insurance clerk in the City for all his working life) but my experience bears little or no resemblance to the typical middle class life described in the Sunday supplements with its foreign holidays, private schools, nannies and endless dinner party angst.

2. Empathy is really important in politics - perhaps as important as what we could call "lived experience". One of the features of modern political discourse, with its emphasis on economics and obsession with evidence, is that it loses feeling. Everything is boiled down to a narrow utilitarian analysis with no room for "gut understanding". People parade class credentials (or attack others for their excess of privilege) without appreciating that this is simply adopting a badge not being empathetic, let alone understanding, of other people's lives. I may be the grandson of a miner but that doesn't make me working class - just a little bit closer to understanding that class than someone who is the grandson of an earl.

3. Policy-making is dominated by the well-off. Chris points to some very privileged people - Jacob Ree-Mogg, David Cameron, Boris Johnson, Seumas Milne and Andrew Murray - to make his point about how posh folk are a problem. But there's a much bigger group of people, not all the product of elite private schools, but still unquestionably wealthy and privileged. The influence of these people (they litter the media, civil service, think tanks and charity administration as well as politics) leads to tin-eared policy-making such as the persistent attacks on working- and lower middle-class lifestyle choices.

4. Generally-speaking the private sector is far more egalitarian than the public sector. I recall the then chief executive of Reed Elsevier telling a tale of how, for the annual report, his PR team were very proudly saying "all our senior management are graduates" - he had to point out to them this wasn't true as he wasn't a graduate. Employment in the city has always been a strange mish-mash between barrow boys and public school grandees (not least because trading requires that ability to hustle, negotiate or strategise that Chris points out is often missing in posh folk).

5. There are too few what I would call "ordinary people" in politics these days. From 1965 to 2005 the Conservative Party was led by people from ordinary backgrounds (Heath, Thatcher, Major, Hague, Duncan Smith, Howard) - all bar one from what us Londoners call the 'provinces'. That politics is now - in every part of its spectrum - completely dominated by folk from less ordinary backgrounds is a failing in what should be an egalitarian pastime.

We give a great deal of attention (rightly in the main) to getting better representation from women and ethnic minorities but much less attention to whether the interests and outlook of the people we chose, gender and race aside, reflect the interests and outlook of most people, especially outside London and the Home Counties. Indeed, there's a tendency to look down the nose as MPs like Phil Davies ("he used to work in ASDA, you know") or Ben Bradley ("shelf stacker in Lidl") rather than see this experience as providing a fighting chance of actually understanding what it's like for the customers and employees of value supermarkets.

I don't think the posh should be disqualified from politics, people like Tony Benn and Willie Whitelaw made major contributions to politics, but I do consider that Chris Dillow has a point - political parties need to think harder how they can get people who better represent the electorate. I think the Conservative Party has done some good work here but it is still the case that the centralised candidate approval system makes it too easy for London-based people with good connections to get approved and onto shortlists for winnable seats.

Perhaps we need also to look at non-graduate routes into professions - my uncle was a county court judge when he died but started his career as a 14-year old post boy in a solicitors' office (another uncle started at Barclay's as a sixteen-year old and finished as a senior tax accountant at the bank). These days too many jobs are closed off to non-graduates - the latest here is nursing which has gone the route of social work and policing in this regard - which makes it pretty tough for the 50% of kids who don't go to university.

Lastly, we need to ask whether the domination of London and the process of sortition by wealth (largely driven by housing costs) contributes to the manner in which well-off people simply don't have a clue about the real lives of most ordinary people - not just the poor but millions of people who are what the Americans would call 'middle class'.


Saturday, 16 March 2019

Today's eternal truth - free markets reduce inequality

This can't be said too often - but too many folk from left, right and centre seem incapable of grasping the cause of inequality:
But extreme inequality is in fact caused by insufficient competition. Given that competition is the lifeblood of capitalism, it follows that inequality is the result, not of capitalism, but of a lack of capitalism.
This is why we need free markets (and why equal societies like Denmark and Sweden have them) - not so evil business people can make bigger profits but because they lead to fairer societies. Big business - you only have to look at the CBI's enthusiasm for mercantilist, protectionist policies - loves the sort of back-slapping, lobby-dominated, regulation-heavy arrangements that the US federal government and the EU are so keen on.


Friday, 15 March 2019

Targeting works (which is why ASBOs and PSPOs are ineffective, lazy, divisive policing)

"Broken window" theory (or, to use its pompous operational name, "order maintenance policing") is the idea that lies behind a lot of modern policing including, in the UK anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs) and public space protection orders (PSPOs):
In essence, Kelling and Wilson argued that latent danger loomed everywhere, and everywhere people’s disorderly impulses needed to be repressed, or else. Their “broken windows theory” didn’t stay theoretical: Also known as order maintenance policing, this tactic propelled an entire generation of policing practice that sought to crack down on minor “quality-of-life” infractions as a way to stem violence.
The problem is that, as research now shows, all this sounds good but doesn't work - a great deal of time and money is invested in the idea that anti-social behaviour (essentially annoying but non-criminal acts) and petty crime are gateway drugs to more serious crime and that we should target deprived areas using aggressive approaches like stop-and-search, arrests for petty misdemeanours and large scale area campaigns. This, in most developed countries, inevitably means targeting areas with concentrations of minority residents (black or Hispanic in the USA, black or South Asian in the UK) leading to understandable allegations of racism and high degrees of mistrust in police and criminal justice.

What Stephen Lurie, Alexis Acevedo, & Kyle Ott have shown is that serious crime (they focus on violent crime) is much more concentrated socially than 'broken window theory" allows:
...in over 20 cities, we found that less than 1 percent of a city’s population—the share involved in what we call “street groups” (gangs, sets, and crews)—is generally connected to over 50 percent of the city’s shootings and homicides. We use “group” as a term inclusive of any social network involved in violence, whether they are hierarchical, formal gangs, or loose neighborhood crews. In city after city, the very small number of people involved in these groups consistently perpetrated and were victimized by the most serious violence.
We are talking about really small numbers of people - Lurie describes how:
This held true even in areas considered chronically “dangerous,” like parts of East Baltimore. There, the group member population totaled only three quarters of a percentage point, even as they were connected to 58.43 percent of homicides. Shootings tend to be even more concentrated than homicides. In Minneapolis, we found that 0.15 percent of the population was determined to be involved in groups, but this population was connected to 53.96 percent of shootings—a proportion over 350 times higher than their population representation.
The conclusion here is that we need to do two things: target resources (policing and other interventions) towards the very small numbers responsible for most of the mayhem, and spend some time explaining to the wider public that 99% of young people living in deprived areas with high crime levels are not criminals or even likely to become criminals. Right now with ASBOs, PSPOs and extensions of stop-and-search we are doing the opposite. These strategies act to give the impression to people in these areas that the police and public authorities do not trust them and consider them likely criminals. It is no surprise, then, that these communities - often minority communities - don't co-operate with the police or other public authorities.

We should scrap ASBOs, PSPOs and the whole structure of anti-social behaviour measures and direct resources towards targeting the small number of (mostly) young men who are responsible for most of the violence, burglary, robbery and assaults in our cities.


Why the EU isn't working for ordinary people (Italian version)...

Tim Parks writes about Italy and the problems with its tanking economy and grumpy electorate - and, in doing so, he bashes the EU nail firmly on the head:
There are two logical ways out of this impasse and the irresponsibility and frustration it breeds. One is a move to a genuine political and fiscal union of Europe; the other is a return to increased national autonomy outside the Euro. Present animosities make the first solution unthinkable. There is no appetite for it. Yet the economic power of the markets to punish any move to leave the Euro makes the second solution suicidal; as Greece has shown.

What we can expect, then, is more and more empty rhetoric and clownish behaviour at a national level; more and more people voting in a spirit of defiance, while tacitly accepting that their vote means nothing. It is a system in which you vote for someone because of what they say they would like to do, not what they can actually do. In short, if you don’t rule your country you can’t expect a viable ruling class.
I keep banging on about how the reason for leaving the EU is to allow us - in most areas of life - to govern ourselves, to give us the chance to do the opposite to how Tim Parks describes Italy and elect people because of what they are going to do not for their chasing of rhetorical unicorns.

Earlier today I took part in a brexit debate at Bradford College - my opening remarks were:
I voted to leave because the EU is distant, unaccountable and fundamentally undemocratic. For all the trappings of democracy – flags, anthems, parliaments, five presidents and periodic elections – there’s no way for us – “we the people” as it were – to change who rules us. For me, if we were simply a member of a trade pact, the sort of thing we joined in 1973 (before I could vote), then I’d be arguing to remain a member. But we’re not a member of “just a trade pact” – the EU wants to have a say in how much tax we pay, in consumer choice, in what is taught in schools, and in the organisation of transport, health and welfare. This is not simply a trade pact.
There are down sides to leaving probably including a short-term economic hit but the big gain is that we can begin the long job of restoring trust in government, in saying to those millions who, for probably the first time in their lives, cast a meaningful vote that we hear them and will give them back the some of the control over government that elites in Westminster and Brussels took away.


Sunday, 10 March 2019

Big government is a substitute for trust not the means to achieve it.

People don't trust government. That government is pretty bad at nearly everything it does. Politicians and officials are at best venal and at worst corrupt. Yet government goes on getting bigger. Go figure?

Nick Gillespie reports on how there has been an almost complete collapse in people's trust of the US government:
In 1964, according to Pew Research Center, 77 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that they "can trust the government in Washington always or most of the time." By 2015, that figure stood at just 19 percent.
Gillespie sets out how scandal played its part:
But the most powerful reasons for collapsing trust in government are surely the actions of government. Consider even a smattering of revelations and developments going back to the late '60s. The U.S. failure in Vietnam was bad enough on its own, but the Pentagon Papers, a secret report commissioned by the Defense Department that concluded our involvement was doomed from the start, revealed a government that was incompetent at best and duplicitous at worst. The Watergate scandal and revelations of widespread corruption in the Nixon White House led to the unprecedented resignation of a president who had won re-election by the largest Electoral College margin up to that point in history. (What suckers we were, giving a crook 61 percent of the vote!) High-profile government commissions issued reports showing that intelligence agencies and the military had engaged in illegal surveillance of American citizens and tested would-be mind-control drugs on unsuspecting soldiers and civilians.
Political corruption sits alongside government institutions having an almost complete disdain for the public to the point where they considers it entirely justified to simply lie to the public. Gillespie skims through the most egregious US examples and wonders why, despite government's abject failure it has continued to grow ever larger and to stick its grubby fingers into ever more aspects of folks' lives. And, with almost sublime irony, the loss of trust is the reason why people turn to government for protection even though they know it is "...at best incompetent and at worst corrupt".

Things are a little better here in the UK but, like the USA, we have lost trust in the fundamental institutions of society. We mistrust parliament, consider government essentially incompetent and are cynical about central social institutions like marriage, church and business. Yet no politician is asking how we might restore trust and confidence - in each other and in society as a whole. This is a moral mission rather than something resolvable through a policy platform and, as such, it sits uneasily with the now dominant utilitarian approach - moral leadership isn't about "evidence-based policy" but about helping people to recognise why trust is so important.

All our current approach to government and politics does is to provide new sets of rules - often in the form of bans and taxes - intended to manipulate public behaviour and to prevent the negative affects of mistrust from being realised. So the lack of trust becomes embedded - government doesn't trust people (and is entirely comfortable with not telling the whole truth) and creates an environment where mistrust is seen as normal. Yet lack of trust makes doing business harder, acts as a drag on economic growth, and rewards those who would hobble choice and opportunity while casting out those who would liberate people from such tyranny.

Gillespie concludes that we need "...policies that increase local control and individual autonomy..." - what we in the UK would call devolution and I think this to be the right place to start. Our obsession with sameness, with avoiding the postcode lottery, has pretty much destroyed the autonomy of local communities and the most approachable and accountable politicians - local councillors - have been reduced to powerless caseworkers through centralisation, local government reform and intervention-based inspection systems.

There's a tendency to see libertarian ideas as a sort of crash capitalism but perhaps we should look to voluntarism as a way through the sickening darkness of a trust-free society:
That means more work is needed putting together serious, detailed policy plans that give more autonomy to individuals and communities; highlighting examples of markets and voluntary organizations succeeding in building trust, self-regulation, and common purpose; and appealing to a broad, positive vision of a strictly limited government whose goals revolve around ensuring basic fairness, equality of opportunity, continued economic growth, and rising living standards.
Everywhere we look we find examples of voluntary action - whether for profit or for reasons of charity or community spirit - that provide this common purpose. Those ideas of mutuality, commonweal and co-operation that created so much good in the 19th century need refinding and reimagining. Whether it's free schools or new mutual financial institutions, these sorts of bodies provide approachable, accountable services to a defined community or a specific neighbourhood. And, at the heart of such organisations' mission is always the idea that most of the time you really can trust your neighbour.


Friday, 8 March 2019

Government should try to fix poor people's economic circumstances not fix their diet

A fascinating interview on Vox with three US sociologists who look at (and have a book about) the mythology and misunderstanding around home cooking - not least that for the first half of the 20th century most American upper middle class families employed a cook. At the heart of their observation, based on a close study of nine families is that Michael Pollan's contention - “We’re going to have to fix our diet before we fix the whole economy.” - doesn't reflect the actual lives of less well off Americans:
But in a lot of cases, there are other, non-food problems that are making it really hard for them to feed their families the way they’d want to. In one of the more extreme examples, there’s Patricia, who is living with her daughter and two grandchildren in a hotel room. She doesn’t have a kitchen. So yeah, she’s heating up frozen pizza — she doesn’t have a stove. And it seems like, no, “fixing our diet” is not going to fix this.
This is an extreme case but one of the researchers explained:
A lot of people in the study had their own houses. But a lot of people in the study didn’t have basic kitchen tools. Their stoves wouldn’t work. They’d have pest infestations. The electricity would get cut off, or the water, for a period of time. A lot of people didn’t have tables or enough chairs for everyone to sit down. So really basic things of this kind of image of what dinner can look like and how you should do it didn’t map up with a lot of the experiences of the poor families in our study.
So when we talk about bad diet, reliance on instant food, not sitting down together as a family - not, so to speak, meeting that middle class ideal - we forget that this lifestyle requires more than just the ability to cook, it needs also the resources to do that cooking and enjoy that dinner. Shouting at poor people about "junk food" is bad enough but when the government plans to deliberately make that food more expense we are actively making the lives of the poorest less tolerable.

Right now the UK government is consulting on a set of restrictions for HFSS food promotions (usually and lazily tagged "junk food" by the media) that includes bans on 'buy-one-get-one-free' offers and limits to advertising. The effect of this approach is likely (along with things like the sugar tax) to just make it harder for the less well off to feed their family. This research reminds us that we need to fix the economic circumstances not fix their diet.